After completing a one-week wheelchair challenge, two local men say life with a wheelchair is harder than they thought.
James McFaddin and Greg Powell have several things in common. They both pastor local churches and they are both married to Castlegar city council candidates in the recent municipal election.
Powell’s partner Nicole Hergert suggested she would like to see an accessibility audit while campaigning for office. Powell then came up with the idea of spending a week in a wheelchair to see what Castlegar life is like for someone in that position and asked McFaddin to join him.
A few weeks later McFaddin and Powell picked up the chairs that would be their primary mode of transportation for the next seven days at Kootenay Home Medical and the experiment began right away with a trip to the grocery store.
In the aisles of the store, the men worked on their driving skills and right away began to experience challenges — maneuvering through tight spaces, reaching things on high shelves and discovering muscles that they don’t normally use.
The men found the challenges were both physical and mental.
One of the biggest problems they experienced was one that intersects both of those aspects — accessing washrooms.
Many places, including one of the men’s doctor’s office, did not have accessible washrooms. And among places that supposedly had accessible facilities, many were almost impossible to navigate or were at the end of hallways that were too narrow.
McFaddin even managed to get his chair wedged in a tight washroom stall between the toilet and the wall. Once he got free, he had to enter the stall backwards in order to fit, but then he couldn’t reach the door to close it. Which brings about the emotional aspect.
There is a lot of stress involved when someone is out and about but unable to find a washroom to use in a straightforward and speedy manner.
“I think it is the biggest problem attached to dignity,” said McFaddin. “You don’t have a lot of options, and that can be very, very embarrassing.”
McFaddin found using the washroom in his own church difficult.
“It broke my heart to realize I have overlooked this,” he said. “But until you are actually trying to get around in a chair, you don’t realize how big of a problem it is.”
Powell said the hardest challenge for him physically was navigating sidewalks that were slightly sloped either towards or away from the street.
“I discovered I was really only using one arm, because the slope kept pushing me onto the road — that was really exhausting,” he said. “It’s compounded exponentially when it is uphill and sloped to the side.”
Powell used public transit several times and was pleased with the experience. He found bus drivers and fellow passengers extremely accommodating.
“But, I did feel like I was in the way,” said Powell. “Especially when the bus was full.”
Both men agreed that best thing about the experiment was the discovery that there really are a lot of kind, helpful people in Castlegar.
“I was quite surprised by the level of kindness and care that random strangers would offer me,” said Powell.
“It was very refreshing to see the accommodation of able-bodied people coming to the rescue when things were challenging,” added McFaddin.
That included everything from pushes up hills, car rides, giving up space on the bus, rearranging seating and opening doors.
Physical challenges were expected, but the men weren’t prepared for the emotional and psychological effects they experienced.
“Because getting in and out of places … can be super challenging … you can’t participate in what everyone else is doing, so you are kind of relegated to the corner,” said McFaddin. “But you can watch, and that’s all you can do.”
That experience played out in a real way for McFaddin at a hockey game that he planned to attend with about 20 people. When they got to the arena, he discovered there really wasn’t a place that he could get his chair to that would allow him to sit with the rest of the group.
“I was instantly without my social group that I was looking to spend time with,” he explained.
“Ultimately I had a very strange feeling come over me that I certainly wasn’t expecting. As I sat alone watching the team play, and I looked around at everyone cheering and visiting, I thought, ‘Does anyone even care enough to help folks like me have a place to socialize?’”
Another struggle was the lack of eye contact and face-to-face interactions.
“All of my regular social cues and social interactions had changed drastically and I was being physically looked down upon, or physically over looked because I wasn’t in the line of sight anymore,” said McFaddin. “Those pieces were quite challenging.”
Another thing they experienced was that people they knew, didn’t actually recognize them from a distance.
Both men acknowledged that they experienced some dark moments.
“There were brief moments where my thoughts were spiraling off quickly into darkness and despair,” said Powell. “There were a few times where I thought, ‘I don’t know if I can do this.’ I was shocked by the despair I felt.”
McFaddin said one of his hardest experiences was not being able to fully participate in the worship services at his church when people were moving around, greeting each other and singing.
“I welled up a bit, with tears coming to the surface and I thought, this would be hard, this would be very, very hard,” said McFaddin. “The psychological aspect of it is very hard, and the despair.”
The empathy factor was greatly increased for these men by just tasting a small bite of the emotional toll that the barriers to participating in society take on people with disabilities.
The list of difficulties they faced continued to grow as the week went on, but in no way reflects what people with a permanent disability actually face.
The men make no claims to fully understanding what a person permanently in a chair faces. But they hope they have gained some insight into what those challenges are and ideas about how to make their city a better place for people to live.a